My mother just turned 90. There were the mazel tovs, the obligatory family gathering, the wishes for the proverbial 120-year life span, and my mother's forced smile as she suppressed her true feelings.
Even in good times my mother rarely allows anyone into her inner space. Her life has been an extended version of the false identity she was forced to assume during the Nazi occupation of Hungary, when disclosure of who she really was meant deportation to places from which no one returned. Since then, dedication to her family and ensuring my two brothers and I turned into responsible, educated men, loyal to our faith and community, was all we were privileged to see or experience. I can't recall a single instance of her voicing a need of her own. That would have reflected vulnerability, a trait most likely to have led to death in that world gone mad she experienced as a young woman.
Now, there are the daily visits with my mother at her nursing home. She has suffered a host of physical debilities these last few years. She sits distantly in a wheelchair, hooked to a feeding tube, reliant on a caregiver in surroundings I am certain are always foreign to her. Yet she refuses to complain. If I ask her how she is, she inevitably replies “fine” or “good,” and we both stare at each other knowing her responses to be anything but the truth. Her fiercely stoic posture is maddening. I am tempted to scream at her so that she’ll tell me how miserable she really is, but she will not surrender. She still feels the need to shield me, a man close to 60, from her interior torment that is hers and hers alone. Always inaccessible, she manages to keep it that way even in her debilitated state.
Once, during recovery from surgery, she seemed unusually scared and anxious. I asked her what was the matter and she blurted in Yiddish, “They're taking people away.” When I asked where, she responded, “to burn them.” Some 70-odd years later, there could be only one thing this referred to, one malignant thought she never could really excise. When her guard was down for just an instant, I finally caught a glimpse of what must lie at the core of her being, but ever present, lingering, irritating and perpetually in need of containment. Ever since, every time I visit, I see those words emerging from her just like those balloons that communicate speech in comic strips.
My parents I suppose were the “lucky ones.” My mother lived as a gentile under false-identity papers and my father was in a slave-labour camp. Most of their families, however, were deported and killed in concentration camps and the final death marches from the camps at the end of the war.
I reflect back on my father, who passed away about seven years ago. He had a very different personality: emotional, sentimental, friendly, accepting, nervous, but often smiling. My mother’s comment leads me to wonder what his demeanour masked. One of the survivors interviewed by Claude Lanzmann in his magisterial documentary of the Holocaust, Shoah, smiles incessantly as he recounts his horrifying experiences. Baffled, Lanzmann asks him why he smiles. He responds in Yiddish, “ Nu, what should I do, cry? Sometimes you smile, sometimes you cry, and if you're alive it’s better to smile.” Those simple words have immeasurably enhanced my understanding of the dual lives led by my parents and many of their peers.
Each of them developed a form of that “smile,” some like my father, and some like my mother with a steely resolve to seal that past in an airtight container their new families could never penetrate. They were alive, had generated new life, and they needed to divert their gaze from the horror they endured so the next generation could escape its morbid grasp. Otherwise life would not be possible. The suicides among my parent’s generation that were never spoken about were the inevitable end of those fixated on the decimation of their families, or whose “smile” was not broad enough to overwhelm their tortured past.
Though we, the children were “protected,” I now realize that my parents’ memories could not be totally submerged, surfacing in the privacy of their rooms and invading their dreams and subconscious. The water metaphor is in keeping with what Primo Levi, whose own “smile” consisted of writing, considered a common fate of Holocaust survivors – to be “drenched in memory.”
A number of years ago, my brother and I accompanied our parents on a trip to their hometowns in Eastern Europe – farming villages once populated by large percentages of Jews. The only Jewish presence now is marked by cemeteries. My father, the romantic, thought he could retrieve something no longer there, while my mother the realist, knew very well the stark absence that lay ahead. While we explored the Jewish cemetery of my mother’s village, my mother stood outside impatiently looking at her watch, prodding us to leave already. We came across our great-grandmother’s grave and excitedly reported our discovery to her. She refused to enter the cemetery, continuing to look at her watch, urging us to move ahead with our itinerary.
I didn’t quite understand her reaction then, but her revealing comment recently in a moment of weakness, about what to her seemed the imminent rounding up of people “to burn,” helped me make sense of it. Approaching her grandmother’s gravesite threatened a drowning by those very memories in which I now realize she was, and remains, drenched.
James A. Diamond lives in Toronto and is the Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo.